Neil Grayson27 Sep 2017 AT 10:26 AM

The UAE's notable firsts

First brunch, tweet, flight, hotel and McDonald's
Neil Grayson27 Sep 2017 AT 10:26 AM
The UAE's notable firsts

We’re taking a look back at monumental firsts across the country. Because sometimes it's not always about being the biggest or tallest: sometimes you're remembered for simply being there before anybody else.

Channel 4 FM
The country's first privately owned radio station, Channel 4 FM, went on air at midnight on June 7, 1997 live from the beach where JBR now stands. The first song played was, appropriately, Republica’s “Ready To Go”.

“There were stations before us,” remembers Jeff Price, the DJ who had the honour of pressing play 18 years ago. "But it was all sort of like Good Morning Vietnam without the ‘good’. We came on air and we acted like rock stars. We were treated like them, too. We never had to queue for a thing.”

Channel 4's swagger was fuelled simply by great pop music, but in 1997, the days before the internet or social media it offered something more. “We realised that what everyone here has in common is they're away from friends and family. Channel 4 brought people together. We were the first radio station to put listeners on-air and share their experiences of being an expat,” says Jeff.

“We also introduced showbiz. You take that for granted now but nobody was doing it back then. We used new technology to talk to whoever was bringing out a new album whether they were in the UK, US or Australia. It paved the way for stuff like Virgin Radio. I have no doubt whatsoever that we changed the UAE forever.”

The Toyota Tower
It’s on your AED 100 note, but the World Trade Centre wasn’t the first skyscraper on this iconic stretch of road. The honour belongs to its near-neighbour. “The Toyota Tower, as well as the residential structures near the Trade Centre, were the only visible buildings in the (early) 1970s,” says Yasser Elsheshtawy, associate professor of architecture at the UAE University, Al Ain. The tower’s official name is actually the Nasser Rashid Lootah Building, but it acquired its landmark status and fond nickname from the neon Toyota advertisement that's been on its roof for more than 30 years.

And while it might look tiny opposite Burj Khalifa today, in 1974 all 15 floors made it the tallest thing for miles. The reason its windows are so small? Air-conditioning wasn’t standard in those days and they were designed to help keep the rooms cool.

Channel 33
Launched in 1979, Channel 33 was Dubai's first English language television channel, initially running programmes between 4pm until 9pm. Richard Coram, who read the nightly news, was one of the channel’s most recognisable faces.

“It was about serving the local expatriate population which had started to rapidly grow,” he tells ShortList. “It was about the community. We're talking about the days before satellite TV and apart from renting a video tape there was no other gogglebox entertainment. Channel 33 was the only players in town.”

It was replaced in 2004 by Dubai One but the station is fondly remembered by long-term expats for its kid's programmes, Thursday night Bollywood movies and American TV show The Bold and the Beautiful. “The government and local businesses could communicate with the public through us,” adds Richard. “Up-to-the-minute local news at 8pm was widely watched. Dubai loved Channel 33. Did I feel famous? Shopping in Spinneys was never the same again!”

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Alexander McNabb and Catboy
“Twitter was unblocked in August 2008 and right away a small group of people took to it with a whoop,” recalls Alexander McNabb, a UAE-based publishing, media and digital communications consultant. “It was initially seen as a dating app, which seemed as ludicrous then as it does now.”

While in the rest of the world, Twitter was destroying the news with its coverage of the Iranian protests and the Arab Spring, its early legacy here was the real-life relationships it created. “It took people out of their cultural groupings,” says Alexander. “Suddenly people were chatting away regardless of creed and colour. I found the tide of Emirati opinion was, in particular, interesting to experience for the first time.”

Simon Smedley (Dubai 92’s breakfast show’s “Catboy”) was on Twitter from day one. In fact he signed up long before the service was unblocked. “I was apprehensive at first,” Simon tells ShortList. “But I was quickly hooked and started using Twitter on the show to get more people on-board. In 2011, I started #DubaiMovies about film title puns based on Dubai and it snowballed across the Middle East and beyond. We had over 6,000 hashtags.”

Nathen Furlong founder of Desert Chill
“My brother Dan was at a very hot and busy event in Dubai back in 2007 and being a Brit immediately asked where the ice cream van was," says Nathen Furlong. "Less than a year later, Desert Chill was born – the regions first ice-cream van. I moved to Dubai to launch the company."

The idea was so unique to the UAE, a new business category had to be created. “There was no mobile food bracket,” remembers Nathen. "So we had to gain the trust of the authorities to be able to start." It was all worth it and the breakthrough trail blazed the way for food trucks years later - The Food Truck company was the first to be given a license to roam in 2014.

"I remember my very first day driving through Arabian Ranches and there were so many smiles and plenty of bemusement as an ice cream van playing Greensleeves down the street,” Nathen recalls. 

The boys claim another first Dubai first, too: their new app allows you to order ice cream have it delivered to your door.  And the nation's favourites? “Traditional chocolate and vanilla still outsells everything.”

Khaleej Times, April 16, 1978
Established by the Galadari Printing and Publishing Company, and with the Dubai Government a major shareholder, the first edition of The Khaleej Times rolled off the presses in April, 1978, with a front-page story about the political situation in Rhodesia.

Five months later, Gulf News was launched. A modest 16-page paper, it splashed with a story about the introduction of breathalysers by the UAE police force. It went through a redesign in 1985. “I was the Business Editor of the new team,” the former Gulf News editor Francis Matthew. “The week of December 10, 1985, was very exciting as we watched the thundering presses print the first copies of our new-look newspaper before it was distributed all over the UAE and further afield for the first time.”

Al Watan cinema in Nasr Square, Deira, Dubai, holds the honour of the first official cinema in the country. Not that it was exactly a “cinema”. In the 1960s, it showed films outdoors, projecting them onto a white painted wall every night at 9pm. It cost a few Indian rupees (there was no Emirati currency 1973). Hard to get hold of American movie prints meant Bollywood was the genre of choice in the 1960s.

Al Ghurair Centre in Deira claims the title UAE’s first “modern” shopping mall. Construction started in the late 1970s and the centre was opened to the public in 1981, delivering a complete entertainment experience – cinemas, shops, four court. It has been remodelled twice in the last 15 years, including a recent AED2 billion expansion that doubled its size.

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Although there were traffic lights around construction sites in Dubai in the 1960s, the first installed on the city’s public roads by Dubai Municipality arrived on Al Fahidi Street opposite VV & Sons. The only operated between midnight and 6am.

Maccy-Ds only arrived in the UAE 21 years ago. The first branch opened in 1994 in Dubai's Al Ghurair Centre. Back then, a Big Mac meal would've cost you AED17 (now AED22). These days, there are 132 branches in the UAE and they all deliver. And the most popular choice? McDonald's Arabia told ShortList it's the McChicken Spicy.

At 11.45am on October 25, 1985, Flight EK600 left Dubai for Karachi. Emirates Airlines, via a Boeing 737 leased from Pakistan International Airways, had just taken off. It had been launched to provide a genuine Dubai-centric air carrier in light of Gulf Air’s decision to scale back its regional services. Just two years later, the airline recruited its first Emirati cabin crew member: 18-year-old Nawal Al Suwaidi (whose employment required a no-objection letter from her guardian), who flew with them for 15 years. 

A ceremonial flight to Al Ain on November 5, 2003, marked Etihad’s aviation debut. Exactly a week later Etihad began commercial operations with the launch of services to Beirut, the first of which took off from Abu Dhabi International Airport at 12:30pm.

The Spectrum on One brunch in the Fairmont Hotel Sheikh Zayed Road, might not technically be the “first” brunch – eating a buffet meal just before midday is hardly the stuff of copyright – but this place certainly popularised the Friday session that has become a staple of the UAE weekend. It also had the first to serve a certain sparkling beverage as part of the package. Sadly, in March this year, it closed its doors after 12 years, to be replaced by Catch.

Al Ain National Museum located in Abu Dhabi opened on November 2 in 1971, a month before the UAE was formed – and about six weeks before the Dubai Museum opened its doors in the old Al Fahidi Fort. Al Ain’s museum is also the first purpose-built museum in the UAE, constructed in the compound of the Sultan Bin Zayed (or “Eastern”) Fort and was inaugurated by Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed Al Nahyan.

There might well have been in guesthouses and inns and other forms of informal accommodation to receive guests in Abu Dhabi, but according to Ibrahim Hanoun, who moved to Abu Dhabi in 1970, the first was the Al Ain Palace on Corniche Road. “Abu Dhabi was such a quiet place then, life was very simple,” he says. “The city only had two hotels, the Al-Ain Palace and the Beach Hotel, which was built by the Bustani family and later became the Sheraton. It’s great it’s still there.”

Hollywood and Bollywood have beaten a regular path to the UAE in recent years, and Ali Mustafa has demonstrated the local talent for making films, but it’s not as recent a phenomenon as some would have it. In 1989, filmmaker Ali Al Abdul wrote and directed Abr Sabeel, which is now accepted as the first Emirati feature film – even if failed to get achieve a cinema release. The next fully Emirati production to reach the big screen was Hani Al Shaibani’s 2005 film Al Hilm, which told the story of a group of frustrated actors trying to make a film in the desert.